Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On the Beach

On Thanksgiving Eve, before the arrival of dear friends and the 'Super Bowl of Cooking,' I wandered out into the ferocious wind for a solitary stroll to see what I could see. With the sun slowly sinking toward twilight the landscape in the shadow of the dunes looked a bit alien to me. Some of the things tossed up by the wild surf piqued my interest. The object resembling a boat was originally, perhaps, someone's lost sneaker; my curiosity compelled me to poke at the strange twisted object - someone's black sweater gone missing! As for the trio of shells and the tire track, I simply liked the juxtaposition.

[[All photos Barbara Butler McCoy, November 24, 2010]]

Friday, November 19, 2010

'Postcards': Wishing You Were Here

The days here in 'Barb-World' (as my husband calls it) have been busy - busy with a capital 'B'. The story pieces are accumulating like the leaves on the forest floor. While I cannot share what I am working on yet, I can tell you I am loving it. Time and again I remember something the director Baz Luhrmann ("Romeo + Juliet," "Strictly Ballroom") said in response to "Why Shakespeare?": "...if you are going to get up at five o'clock every morning for two years you have to have a hell of a lot of passion about something." Oh yea.

The passion I have for storytelling keeps me trying, digging, refining, heading back to the drawing board - and doing a triumphant solo dance when something comes together better than I'd dreamt. [So that explains the photo of my mp3 player and my eraser - because if you don't make some mistakes you aren't trying hard enough, eh?]

One of the really interesting aspects of 'Barb-World' is the occurrence of something called 'synesthesia.' One definition is as follows: A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color. More often than not it is either the sight of color or the rhythm of music that sets me off spinning another web of story.

The past week or so I have been contemplating the work of two excellent dancers - our own Gene Kelly (born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1912) and Jean Butler (a native of New York). I fell in love with Gene Kelly's work when I was about twelve years old and, during my husband's naval career, I thought of Kelly's dancing whenever I heard "Anchors Aweigh!" I can easily imagine the work of this dancer from Pittsburgh, a dancer with a fierce work ethic, inspiring young people with a passion for dance,like Jean Butler.
To me they are to dance what William Shakespeare is to literature - so very good at what they do that I am inspired to go beyond "good enough." Maybe it is a matter of not being easily satisfied because if it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

So, if you'll excuse me, I will leave you with some photos of the gorgeous leaves I see as I work at my desk or in my courtyard, and I'll get on back to work.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dia de los Muertes

Poets and peacemakers
along the way
before me, behind me -
me in between.

No better than any, nor worse -
simply walking, begging
Your pardon for the curses,
Your indulgence for the slips.

In Your continuum I tread -
the lines, etched into my palm -
stepping with the pulse
echoing since dawn.

We will carry it through
round and round again,
generation upon generation,
until the dreaming is done.

Barbara Butler McCoy

[[Photo: Barbara Butler McCoy;
Bee foraging for pollen; zoo,
Columbia, SC; September 2008]]

Two candles I lit this morning after Mass, for the Ancestors and Ancestresses. Since then my thoughts have been with those who have gone before and those who are to come. This, my acknowledgement, my tribute, is how those thoughts resolved into a coherent piece. I was inspired in part by William Butler Yeats's poem "Pardon Old Fathers" (from Responsibilities, 1914), in part by a line from Prospero's epilogue in William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" ("let your indulgence set me free") and a quote I found from Thich Nhat Hanh which is as follows: "If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."

Blessings and peace to them.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"The Creative Journey"

On Tuesday afternoon, October 19, 2010, I had the singular pleasure of joining a few thousand people gathered on the campus of Emory University to hear the artists Richard Gere (actor) and Alice Walker (poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning author) in a conversation with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama about "The Creative Journey: Spirituality and Creativity." What follows is my synthesis of a number of points the trio touched upon during that presentation.

One question initiated their discussion: "Do the arts have a special role in deepening compassion?"

His Holiness speculated that such a role is possible for artists in that the performing arts (he mentioned music and dance specifically) are ways "to convey some message." His Holiness observed, however, that much of the media expends itself promoting instant gratification and distraction. As I consider that observation I agree that such practices in the media foster impatience and an inability to focus beyond surface qualities. This clearly is counterproductive to a depth of compassion, spirituality or understanding of truth.
For millennia sages the world over have taught that the 'greater path follows the heart as well as the spirit.' With that in mind, and as it is clear in my posts on this blog that I choose to follow the path of the heart, I take this opportunity to respond to the discussion of the arts as a vehicle for deepening compassion.

Quite early in the discussion Mr. Gere described his view of the divergent motivations for creativity of Westerners and Tibetans - dreams and a desire for clarity, respectively. As I listened I noted that the pursuit of art in an effort to express, fulfill, or share a dream could be followed in the service of achieving clarity. Ms. Walker agreed with the need for clarity. Art can "help us to see" and, one hopes, guide us to deal with compassion for others once we gain our sight.

Mr. Gere, echoing some assessments of William Shakespeare's work, opined that the arts hold a mirror up to our lives so "we can see ourselves truer and ... deeper within the human context." Much later in the discussion he pointed out that humanity is deeply interconnected, thus, "We are responsible for our world."

As I see it, if one accepts that each of us is responsible for our world the question is, "What, then, are an artist's responsibilities for which he or she will be held accountable?" Mr. Gere stated succinctly, "Creativity is essentially storytelling." I agree, and allowing that the responsibility
of art is to tell the human story the question becomes, "What stories will artists choose to tell, and why?"

For my part the range of human experience - the beauty and majesty, the horror and despair - appear infinite,
thus providing infinite stories to reflect upon all aspects of the truth of humanity and bring clarity to all of them. I offer the opinion, my own, that creative acts of artists can be acts of compassion. A definition of compassion is "sympathetic feeling"; "sympathy" is understood to be the capacity for entering into and sharing the feelings or interests of another.

A creative act can highlight and examine some portion of the human experience and, in the process, make sense of it for some or call it to the attention of others. Helping others to see more clearly does indeed engender compassion. "Until you see people," Ms. Walker asserted, "It is very difficult to have compassion for them."

Mr. Gere noted that, "Every situation is a possibility for transcendence," pointing out the "extraordinary levels of grace" writers in the Soviet Union evinced in their work despite the oppression they endured. His Holiness agreed with this, calling the "flowering of compassion" blooming from that oppression "a paradox."

In my mind, as I review my notes of the discussion I find myself thinking that the Creative Journey sounds much like Joseph Campbell's description of the hero's journey: a journey into terra incognita to return with a boon for oneself and the society. Here I point to another paradox of human experience: beauty and light may be terra incognita for some while darkness and horror are alien to others. To deny some part of the human story will leave some portion of humanity yearning.

In light of that I must share one of His Holiness' more emphatic points. He stated firmly that when you are about to embark upon something you must really examine whether or not this is for you. If you do not do this, and if you set out unprepared, you will leave behind you a trail of unfinished business.

At that point I recalled a statement by Mr. Gere, at another point
in the discussion, that His Holiness is someone who has to continually work to be who he is. I understand this to be an integral part of the Creative Journey as well - a constant assessment of consciousness and cultivation of clarity. To neglect this invites imbalance and pulls the artist from the creative and compassionate path. While His Holiness alluded to the wisdom of mental conditioning as a part of the process of cultivating clarity, he did allow that the ego plays an important role as well. He asserted that self-confidence, a "sense of a strong self," is important because, "If we don't have a sense of who I am or what I can do it wouldn't be much."

For two hours on Tuesday the evolving stories, the lives, of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, Alice Walker, and thousands of others converged on a southern academic campus. Whatever art springs from that experience is yet to be seen, but it will be central to humanity.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Around the corner ...

Autumn, my favorite season, is around the corner. So says my calendar. Summer's haze, heat, and humidity fade slowly here in Georgia, but the seasons maintain their cycle. Moon after moon, in all its phases, and sun after sun dance with our little blue planet. Spheres of silver and gold strung on a chain of days bring brightness to our ways.

I look back now over the summer even as I look forward to the approaching holidays, and I see some lovely gems of memory worth mention. One gem is named 'Savannah,' that lovely harbor city on Georgia's coast. My husband and I visited it late in August for the second time, just before my birthday. (We learned a few days ago that a couple of our favorite spots, the Olde Pink House Restaurant and the Moon River Brewing Company, are considered haunted. Go figure.) The history in Savannah is palpable and I especially appreciate the creative influence that the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) infuses into the mix. Between forays in that city and a visit to Tybee Island, I was able to get some lovely photos and do a bit of Christmas shopping so I felt quite productive.

Productivity reigned when we returned home. I spent a few afternoons standing at the stove stirring pots of fruits for preserves and pie filling (cherry) and jam (spiced peach) so I have some of summer's special delights stored up for the windy winter to come. Yum.

It really isn't so bad standing over the stove if one has a good book to read. Or if you are joyously anticipating a homemade cherry pie! I do love cherries. In the winter I love to spread the cherry pie filling on pancakes or waffles. Double yum.

In amongst all that preserving and jamming I managed to rearrange my living room, sew up some lovely drapery panels, install the curtain rods and hang my handiwork.

Here are a few photos. Enjoy.

[Photos: (from top) Storefront on Savannah's riverfront, Savannah, GA; Barbara Butler McCoy, 2010; Boats moored for the night on Lazaretto Creek, east of Savannah, GA; Barbara Butler McCoy, 2010; homemade cherry pie, Barbara Butler McCoy, 2010; homemade spiced peach jam, Barbara Butler McCoy, 2010.]

Friday, September 17, 2010

Faraway Nearby: Updated

Often, in the midst of researching and studying material for one thing, I find a gem which casts a new light on a previous piece. Such is the case with my stated understanding of Ms. Georgia O'Keeffe's "Faraway Nearby."

About one-quarter of the way through my copy of Martin Buber's "I and Thou" I discovered something quite illuminating about the language of "primitive" peoples, "whose life is built up within a narrow circle of acts highly charged with presentness." These "primitives" use "words in the form of sentences" which "mostly indicate the wholeness of a relation."

The key words to consider in this are "presentness" and "wholeness of a relation." Consider that these words indicate that "primitives" were present in the environment, believing that they and their environment were interconnected. Be they inhabitants of mountainous regions, tidal plains, valleys, forests, wherever they were they were there. They knew the life of the land was their life as well. Further, I interpret this "presentness" to mean that they were mindful in whatever activities they undertook. They were focused. They would be overwhelmed, I think, by the current culture of cell phones, 3-G devices, and multi-tasking computers.

It occurs to me that to a great degree these notions of "presentness" and "wholeness of relation" are practices evident in the lives of artists. Ms. O'Keeffe is a case in point. Whether in the wild places of New Mexico, the urban landscape of New York, or her boundless vision of poppies and pelvises, Ms. O'Keeffe was mindful of her surroundings.

Ms. O'Keeffe mastered her language of color and brushstrokes upon canvas, vividly illustrating these concepts of "presentness" and "wholeness of relation." Her paintings speak to us of her understanding of herself as one with her environs.

Regarding words as language, Martin Buber informs us that while "We say 'far away'; the Zulu has for that a word which means, in our sentence form, 'There where someone cries out: 'O mother, I am lost.'"

Perhaps there in her 'wild places' Ms. O'Keeffe considered herself both lost and found?

[Bibliography: Buber, Martin. "I and Thou." Scribner Classics: New York, 1958, 2000 (p. 31)]

[Photo: Artwork in MARTA station, Decatur, GA; Barbara Butler McCoy, September 2010.]

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Body of Works

Over breakfast this morning I ran across something in the NYT Sunday Style section that raised an eyebrow. In the Cultural Studies section, page eleven, Ms. Schuessler alluded to a statistic that only half of all American adults "report reading even one work of fiction, drama or poetry a year." Really? That prompted me to review my reading habits over this past year, which raised my other eyebrow. Though the list is not comprehensive and excludes the dramas and non-fiction I've been reading, the list tallies up to 22 works of fiction. This past weekend, at the Decatur Book Festival, I had the chance to spend nearly an hour listening to the author whose body of work comprises 41 percent of that list, Ms. Diana Gabaldon.

A dear friend of twenty-plus years, to whom I introduced Ms. Gabaldon's "Outlander" series nearly twenty years ago, came to town with her husband from North Carolina to attend Ms. Gabaldon's talk about "All Things Outlander." The weather was stunning, just gorgeous and we rode MARTA along with a crowd of high-spirited LSU fans (who outnumbered the UNC fans on our portion of the train). She and I were feeling a little bit giddy, too, I must admit, to the bemusement of our husbands. We waited in line, chatted about this and that, and were lucky enough to get good seats. Someone squealed when Ms. Gabaldon entered the sanctuary of Decatur Presbyterian Church and the lightheartedness of that greeting reigned throughout the author's appearance.

Ms. Gabaldon was a joy to watch - gracious, witty, erudite, polished, confident, engaging. My friend's husband, who'd slipped into the talk with my husband without our knowledge, described her as "very charming" and he has since begun reading her first novel, "Outlander."
I - we - had such a wonderful time Saturday afternoon. It is obvious that Ms. Gabaldon enjoys her work very much and gives it all the professional attention it deserves. It is also obvious that there is mutual admiration between her and her fans.

For myself I must borrow some lines from Will Shakespeare's Sonnet 136:
Among a number one is reckon'd none;
Then in the number let me pass untold,
Though in thy store's account I one must be.

[In case anyone is curious, my fiction list over the past year includes 7 works by Candice Proctor, 9 by Diana Gabaldon, 2 by Guy Gavriel Kay, and one each by Linda Buckley Archer, Earl Emerson, Boris Akunin, Kathy Reichs, and Mingmei Yip. ]

[[Photos: top - the author Diana Gabaldon speaking at Decatur Presbyterian Church, Sept. 4, 2010, by Barbara Butler McCoy; relief detail in the Five Points MARTA Station, 2010, Barbara Butler McCoy]]]

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"In Your Home": Bonnie, Floyd, Isabel, Katrina

Bonnie, Floyd, Isabel, Katrina - hurricanes all.

I remember vividly taping X's over the windows of our officer's quarters on the Navy base then waiting out Bonnie in 1986. We sat listening to the howling and screaming wind, watching debris fly past the windows, staying as calm as possible so our four-year-old and infant sons would not panic. We emerged from Bonnie unscathed, Floyd and Isabel, too, most thankfully.

My heart clenched instinctively five years ago when Katrina hit our Gulf coast. I had no frame of reference, however, for the devastation of the flooding after the hurricane. The only word I can imagine that could begin to touch the horror of the flooding is 'nightmare.' I can type the sentences that speak of people wandering a devastated landscape without food, clothing, or shelter; of people wandering a landscape once familiar, become alien and literally toxic; of people wandering a landscape that would erupt in flames. I can type the sentences, but I cannot lay claim to the experience.

For all that I do not have personal, firsthand experience of Katrina I do feel that another's pain does affect me and mine. Thus, I am grateful for exhibits such as "Katrina: 5 Years of Reflection" at the Spruill Gallery in Dunwood, GA. (August 13 - September 11; free admission; open Wednesday through Saturday, 11am - 5pm) In introductory remarks provided about the exhibit Hope Cohn wrote that artistic works have the effect of "reinforcing the importance of community, compassion and humanity." As it happens, a number of artists from New Orleans relocated to the Atlanta community in the wake of Katrina and their work, along with that of Atlanta artist Elyse Defoor, comprise the exhibit.

In the remarks provided with her body of work, "X.U.ME," Ms. Defoor wrote that she had been "overwhelmed by the endless landscape of loss and devastation." She had returned to New Orleans in the Spring of 2006 and again in the Spring of 2010 - just ten days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf. It is evident that the X's painted on the buildings by rescue workers became the organizing principle for "X.U.ME." She explains that before a team of rescue workers searched a building they painted the first stroke of an 'X', upper left to lower right, on the outside of the building so that it would be visible from the street. If the 'X' was not completed other teams and volunteers would know to go in search of the missing team. The quadrants of a complete 'X' contained the team's initials (left), the date (top), the number of hazards present (right), and the number of corpses found (bottom).

Debra Howell was a photographer with one of the companies conducting surveys of damaged structures for historic and architectural significance. These photographs documented "every former home and business one by one, often tracking down a house blocks away from its foundation." Ms. Howell's work was included in "Katrina Exposed: A Photographic Record" at the New Orleans Museum of Art in May 2006. She found that for this exhibit "Katrina: 5 Years of Reflection" the images did not resonate for her in the same way, " ... the BP oil spill had changed the way I now read images of flooded houses and flood lines in a disturbing and horribly deja vu kind of way, but one that had to be documented."

Ms. Howell collaborated with New Orleans artist Jan Gilbert in the work "Waterwords, A Katrina Pictionary." It is a series of photos with text that is a variant on the "Fortune Cookie" game. 'Waterwords' "plays on the linguistic phenomenon in which a word's importance in a culture is reflected in the number of variations of it that exist in the cultural lexicon." The example which summed it up for me was "water symbology n: the study or interpretation of water stains in your home."

Storm debris, some from the site of her devastated home, was incorporated in Lori Gordon's mixed media assemblages Shaman I, Shaman II, Shaman III, Shaman IV. These Shamans address the issues of rebirth and renewal. Krista Jurisich worked in mixed media as well to create her "New Orleans Immortelle Series." "'Immortelle' refers to historical French icons created to revere the deceased." Ms. Jurisich states that the series "also pays tribute to current consequence of deep water," and one of the pieces includes what I interpreted to be depth markings. Ms. Jurisich also wrote that "witnessing and living in a disaster unfolding has been beyond my life experience."

Photography by Brian Nolan and Neil Alexander is also presented in the exhibit. Mr. Nolan's series is titled "Residual Images" and is comprised of photographic images culled from notebooks containing his life's work in photography. These notebooks had sat in his New Orleans home, in the flood waters, for a month. "Occasionally out of the depths of the damage something recognizable will appear," Mr. Nolan states, yet he acknowledges, "I cannot determine why some were spared while others were washed clean of the film emulsion." He also states, "Being on the inside of the disaster is something I was not prepared for. It humbled me while at the same time gave me an incredible sense of hope." In the end he wrote, "Out of something incredibly tragic and destructive I have found something beautiful. What more can I ask for?"

At the time of the hurricane Neil Alexander was a local architectural photographer in New Orleans. He did not evacuate, thus his photos offer a first person record of the city post-Katrina. I especially noted a diptych entitled "Party World" showing, on the right, brilliant pink tents resembling houses. They evoked, for me, John Mellencamp's song "Pink Houses" from his "Uh Huh" CD.

This was my first visit to the Spruill Gallery of what I hope will be many. Initially, when I saw the 'X' spray-painted on the Gallery's exterior I feared it was graffiti. When I saw the sign advertising the exhibit I understood, as I remembered images of buildings so marked after the hurricane. While a community can and must move on from devastation eventually, the human community can and must acknowledge a tragic event, a tragic loss.

A series of photos with a flood line superimposed over them, a collaboration among Ms. Howell, Ms. Gilbert, Ms. Jurisich, and Michele White, is accompanied by the following legend:
"Unless I remind myself to look, I don't see the black flood lines anymore and it may be that we have to keep such marks visible and in tension with our daily lives in order to connect our histories to our possible futures and try to fix things."

[Author's note: All text in quotation marks is taken from text on plaques accompanying the works on exhibit. Please visit the exhibit to witness the full text.]

[[Photo: Spruill Gallery exterior, the author, 2010]]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Views from the Lighthouse

Inspired by Pete McGregor's photo, I went back through my photo library and found these shots taken from the lighthouse on St. Simons Island, along the coast of Georgia. There are a number of these brilliant white lighthouses along the East Coast and I have to say that they are my favorites, over the brick and the black and white, but I cannot say why. They just are.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The 'Faraway Nearby'

My long-standing admiration for Ms. Georgia O'Keeffe and her work has been noted here before now. As my study of her life and work has progressed I've felt more and more in her a kindred spirit. Superficially, a glance shows only the differences between us: she painted, I write; she preferred the desert, I prefer wooded areas; she enjoyed a career spanning about six decades, my career is nascent. Beyond that surface treatment, however, I find reassurance in the discovery that we've been in some of the same locations: Wisconsin; Lake George, NY; Williamsburg and Charlottesville, VA; Columbia, SC.

The heart of this kinship, I find, is the trait of an independent spirit. The doctor's assessment of me at two weeks of age applies to her as well: a mind of her own and not afraid to use it.

Looking over some photos from a day-trip during the Independence Day Holiday I see evidence of this kinship blossoming in my own artistic pursuits. Indeed, it appears it may be developing into a pattern. In 2009 I shot "Equine Pelvis With Sky", my take on "Pelvis With Distance." This year I shot my own view from the 'Faraway Nearby.'

I may live in the Big City, but I live a pretty simple life. So, I put on my Simple Shoes*, plopped a hat on my head and headed to Amicalola Falls State Park ** where my husband and I hiked up past the falls on up to the lodge for lunch. Sitting there by a wall of windows I was enchanted by the blue of the Blue Ridge and the carefree flight of several hawks, one of whom I was fortunate to capture in this shot.

Only later did I realize, "That's the 'Faraway Nearby'!" There it was, an interpretation of a mountain view - forested and sans the antlered skull - that evoked that same paradox of vastness and immediacy, elusiveness and intimacy. Those mountains feel they could never be reached, however far I might stretch myself. Then, suddenly I realize I was right there, right there in the midst of them.
I've shared merely the bones of my experience climbing that trail, looking out at the range from above the falls. It will serve, I hope, as an image found in the spirit of independence.

[Photos: Falls at Amicalola Falls State Park, Dawsonville, GA; view from restaurant in lodge at Amicalola Falls State Park; 5 July 2010]

*Seriously, they're literally Simple Shoes
** Amicalola Falls, Cherokee for 'Tumbling Waters,' is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. It is located in northern Georgia at the southern end of the Appalachian range. You can enter the Appalachian Trail here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Notre Dame

[This post is dedicated to Phoebe Prince and her family. Ms. Prince took her life earlier this year after months of cruel harassment and torture from fellow students at the high school she attended in Massachusetts. She and her family had moved to the States from Ireland in 2009.]

For months now I've been haunted by this image. Some days past I realized I had written a poem that could fit with that image to a degree so I have posted it here. The story of how that poem came to be written is an intriguing one.

It was a quiet Saturday morning in September 2004 and I lay suspended between sleeping and waking when I heard a voice, as if in a dream, say, "The wizards are gathering on an uneven plain." I came suddenly awake, wondering what had just happened. Why were wizards being brought to my attention? I'd been reading Harry Potter, sure, but why was I to pay attention to wizards? While I fumbled sleepily with my sweatshirt and slippers I considered alternative meanings for 'wizards.' My husband looked more than a bit puzzled when I stumbled into the kitchen, where he sat surfing the web on the laptop, and asked, "Aren't the bigwigs in the KKK called Grand Wizards or something?"

His response was swift and silent. He turned to me after a search of the internet and before I'd finished making the coffee to tell me he'd found a book, "Notre Dame vs. The Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan." What? No way. To my great surprise I discovered that the book did indeed exist and had just been published the previous month. Fully aware that it would take months for the library to get a copy, if it even ordered one, I ordered a copy and by the next weekend had finished reading it. I was stunned.

"Notre Dame vs. The Klan" was written by Notre Dame alumnus Todd Tucker and chronicles a weekend in South Bend, IN which has been at best a footnote in American history. Tucker painstakingly lays out for the reader the history and the aftermath of the incidents and the two primary protagonists, David Curtis Stephenson and Fr. Matthew Walsh. In essence the story is all about D. C. Stephenson's greedy grab for power over the Ku Klux Klan. The University of Notre Dame was, in his mind, an easy and highly visible target in the Klan's drive against "the alien element." Humiliate the Irish, the Catholics, feed that victory to his loyal followers and that would seal his quest.

Stephenson had risen to wealth from poverty. Born in Houston, Texas in 1891 David Curtis Stephenson's early education, like that of Fr. Matthew Walsh, president of Notre Dame in 1924, was in Catholic schools. Like Matthew Walsh he was a promising student. Unlike Matthew Walsh Stephenson's promising mind was belittled by his father, a sharecropper. When D. C. was ten years old his father moved the family to Maysville, Oklahoma, a town without a school and the boy's education was derailed, to his father's delight. In 1907, however, D. C. graduated from the eighth grade of a school built by the town to serve the increased population spurred by the new railroad.

The railroad also brought a farmer with a love of politics, John Cooper, to town. "In 1910, Cooper bought a controlling interest in the town's only newspaper the Maysville News. He gave Arizona Stephenson, D. C. Stephenson's older brother, a job running the typesetting equipment at the paper. Eager to help his brother escape their father and their depressing home outside of town, Arizona talked Cooper into hiring D. C. ...... When he wasn't working, Stephenson relished Cooper's wild political rants and his animated predictions of a Socialist revolution. 'The Socialists stand for the common man, the working man,' he told Stephenson. 'If you vote for a Democrat or a Republican, you're just a sucker for the rich man.' Talking to Cooper, it seemed to Stephenson that the Socialist Party was the place to be for any ambitious young man.'"

At Cooper's behest, the Oklahoma Socialists hired D. C. Stephenson as an organizer for the 1914 gubernatorial campaign. He was smart. He'd worked for a newspaper for years. He had grown up in poverty. He was good looking - a definite asset in drawing a crowd. "Stephenson learned an age-old political truth during that campaign: make people feel like they belong, and they'll go along with whatever you say."

The gubernatorial campaign did not result in success for the Oklahoma Socialists and D. C. drifted around the state from newspaper job to newspaper job and into a marriage, which he abandoned when his wife was pregnant with their child. He fled to Iowa and it was there, as he worked for a printer, that he joined the Army when the United States entered World War I. As an officer, a recruiter, he never left America.

Postwar, D. C. returned to the Midwest and lived on the road in his capacity as salesman of typesetting equipment. He eventually moved to Evansville, Indiana with his second wife - his first wife had tracked him down and filed for divorce in 1917 - a star salesman of newspaper equipment and stock for a local coal brokerage firm. It was in Evansville, in 1920, that the Klan signed him to recruit members, promising him four dollars of every ten dollar membership he delivered. Within six months of his recruitment, "he had sold five thousand memberships, netting twenty thousand dollars at a time when the average American man made twelve hundred dollars in a year. The Ku Klux Klan was making him rich."

He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the spring of 1922, but "the Klan leadership in Atlanta promoted him to King Kleagle of the state." He and his wife Violet moved to Indianapolis. The move accelerated D. C.'s "descent into debauchery." At one point neighbors called in the police during an incident of domestic violence.

With the Indiana Klan in his pocket, Stephenson allied himself with "Hiram Evans, a pudgy, nearsighted Exalted Cyclops from Dallas" with plans to oust the current Imperial Wizard during the Thanksgiving holiday of 1922. He cared little for Evans but even less for the current I. W. "In reward for his loyalty during the coup, Evans gave Stephenson responsibility for twenty-three northern states. He also promised to promote Stephenson to Grand Dragon if his stellar performance continued."

With so much power handed to him it wasn't long before Stephenson decided to act upon his dislike of and dissatisfaction with Evans. He envisioned that under his guidance the Indiana Klan would become the dominant faction and sweep the national organization along with it. Rallies, speeches, and editions of The Fiery Cross proclaimed the virtues of the Ku Klux Klan as the only bulwark against the "alien element," which was always thoroughly demonized.

"While Stephenson's recruiting machine continued to roll smoothly across the Midwest, his personal life was getting out of control. Women threw themselves at him, but he found himself most attracted to those who were not impressed with his money or power. When he was able to draw these women into his life, he was often abusive toward them, attacking them in strange and horrible ways. He would hit them or claw them or, even worse, sometimes bite them savagely all over their bodies. His men became skilled at talking women into walking away without calling the police after Stephenson had assaulted them."

For a little over a year before the fateful altercations in May, 1924, the Klan ratcheted up its inflammatory rhetoric. The Klan estimated that 425,000 Hoosier men were Klansmen, support which ensured that Klan members on the Republican slate of candidates for statewide office were winners in the primary. Stephenson saw his strategy to take over the Indiana state Republican Party bear fruit in the primaries. Soon the state would be run by his people and he would have carte blanche to do as he pleased without consequence other than amassing further riches and power.

Through all of this Fr. Matthew Walsh kept a weather eye on the Klan's activities and pursued a level-headed administration of the University of Notre Dame. Sadly, despite his best efforts he could not prevent the altercations between his students and the Kluxers, some of whom had been deputized by South Bend law enforcement.

In reading about and analyzing Tucker's book I knew that many people could and would find D. C. Stephenson's goals abhorrent, but that did not answer my question about why I was directed to this historical incident. I have no ties either to the University of Notre Dame or to the city of South Bend. I have only known three people who are alumni of the university and I haven't been in touch with any of them for nearly thirty years. Why me?

Slowly I came to realize that I was meant to see this as a writer, as an artist. I was being asked to train that artistic eye which looks beyond mere factual representation to the deeper truth of human experience. What struck me then as a writer was the reality that, although the students of Notre Dame fought valiantly they did not bring down the Klan in Indiana. A woman did.

In March 1925 D. C. Stephenson abducted a woman he'd begun seeing, Madge Oberholtzer. He and his men bundled her, rendered nearly unconscious and therefore harmless by the alcohol they'd forced her to consume, onto a train. During the ride which ended just before crossing the state line into Illinois Stephenson abused and raped her. The next day, deciding she would be better off dead, Ms. Oberholtzer pretended she needed cosmetics and was permitted to go to a drugstore with a bodyguard. She bought and ingested a disinfectant, mercury bichloride, instead. She had poisoned herself, vomiting blood almost immediately.

Madge Oberholtzer was eventually dumped unceremoniously in bed in her parents' home. Broken, destroyed in body and spirit she clung to life for weeks - long enough to give a "detailed, witnessed, signed and notarized statement" to an attorney. Stephenson was arrested on kidnapping charges on April 2, 1925. During the ensuing uproar Stephenson's first wife appeared in town with their daughter, demanding child support. Madge Oberholtzer died at home on April 14 and the charge against Stephenson was changed to second-degree murder.

In the end neither his political connections nor a trial in a venue with strong Klan affiliation helped D. C. Stephenson. His "debauchery" was antithetical to Klansmen and he was convicted of the charge on November 14, 1925. In the aftermath of his conviction the political careers of the governor and secretary of state D. C. Stephenson and the Klan had championed were ruined. "The chairman of the Indiana Republican Party went to prison. a judge in Muncie was impeached. The entire Indianapolis City Council resigned."

As I contemplated a poem based on this story I remembered an incident from 1920 recounted in the second volume of R. F. Foster's biography of William Butler Yeats (p. 181): "On 26 October the news of MacSwiney's death came to Gort. Ten days later Ellen Quinn was shot dead outside her front door in Kiltartan, from a military lorry passing by, a baby in her arms. This horror struck deeply home. The murdered woman was the young wife of Malachi Quinn, one of a well-known Gort farming family, who rented Ballinamantane from the estate; the killing was utterly random. After a huge funeral and angry demonstrations, an official 'inquiry' applied some unconvincing whitewash." Within weeks Michael Collins had orchestrated a response, portrayed in the movie "Michael Collins."

It wasn't much of a stretch of imagination to think it possible that Irish in America in the 1920s were painfully aware of the horrors in their ancestral homeland. Perhaps that pain washed through their consciousness as they watched events unfold in the Midwest? Although firearms were barely a factor in the riots in South Bend I felt I had to find a way to reference Ellen Quinn's death in some manner. Thus, she became the woman in the poem.

Tucker attributes this assessment of the Indiana countryside during a fly-over to D. C. Stephenson: "The impossibly flat Indiana plain unfolded beneath him like one of the battlefield maps he had studied as a child."

It seems to me, however, the message of all of this is simply that this plain is watched over by Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin, the Blessed Mother, the Queen of Heaven and only a fool would dare to think it flat, even.

Tucker, Todd. "Notre Dame vs. The Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan." Chicago: Loyola Press, 2004 (pps. 17, 19, 91, 92, 94, 110, 210)

Foster, R. F. "W. B. Yeats: A Life II. The Arch-Poet." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003]

Friday, June 4, 2010

Chicken, a Giant

I have been enjoying the blog postings of an admirably inventive and energetic young man here in Atlanta, and I thought of this post in particular when I spied this chicken in Marietta. Think of the eggs! The 'Big Tow' sign was a happy accident.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Will: "I Am"

There is a line in the movie "Amelie" to the effect that the world is not always kind to dreamers. The worst unkindness the world can visit upon anyone, dreamer or not, is to assert that that someone is not who they say they are. William Shakespeare, a dreamer par excellence whose birth we celebrate today, has been the target of naysayers for centuries now. In tribute to his enduring masterpieces I wish to add my voice to those who assert unequivocally that William Shakespeare and only William Shakespeare wrote as William Shakespeare.

It is something of a cottage industry, this anti-Stratfordianism, and it is centered around several arguments I consider flimsy and pointless at best, arrogant and ignorant at worst.

Their arguments include the proposition that it is 'outrageous' to consider that a glover's son from the shire with no degree from Oxford or Cambridge could have written these plays and poetry. Some point
out as well Will Shakespeare's lack of expertise in fields such as law and music, fields he wrote about throughout his career. Others assert that he portrayed court life so thoroughly that he could not have written the plays because he was not a courtier. Thus, the work must have been written by a noble who chose 'William Shakespeare' as his pseudonym. Still others adhere to the theory that the work was written by several nobles. Some believe the work was written by a woman.

As for myself, while I do have questions about his work I have never questioned his authorship of that work. As regards the question of Will Shakespeare's education, no documents have yet been found to affirm formal education for the Bard. We do know there was a grammar school in operation in Stratford-upon-Avon during his childhood years and I suspect that the curriculum was much more rigorous than we could imagine. An adult with as lively a mind as his must have surely been a precocious child. His father was a town councilman of sorts and so I find it easier to imagine he sent his son to school to discipline his mind than that he did not.

To those who say a woman wrote the plays I say, 'No.' I am a woman. I champion women, but from my continuing study of the Renaissance and the quality of life for women then I do not feel that a woman had a chance in hell of either producing or presenting the body of work attributed to William Shakespeare. Yes, Elizabeth I was a titan, a trailblazer, but it would be hundreds of years before women gained any sort of power in the 'play-acting' business. After all, only this year did a woman receive the Academy Award for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"). Eighty-two years of Academy Awards preceded her award. We should not forget, also, that during Shakespeare's time the playhouses were considered dens of iniquity and were the constant target of attempted closures.

I consider the other anti-Stratfordian arguments from the point of view of a writer. From what I have read of court life at the time being a courtier sounds as though it was a full-time job in and of itself. Writing is a lot of work. It takes patience. It takes practice. It pops up in your life in a million different ways and almost always when you least expect it. It does not adhere to any sort of schedule whether one is a noble or not. Some nobles did indeed write; Sir Francis Bacon was famous for his essays, but discursive writing is much different than dramatic or poetic writing as most would agree.

While some nobles did indeed write and present some highly stylized dramatic productions I do not believe any one noble or any group of nobles working in concert could have produced the 36 plays attribute to William Shakespeare. That number indicates that he wrote more than one play per year over the course of his career. One of the aims of court life, it seems to me, was to keep the nobles separate, keep them focused on the monarch and their own best interests. How, then, could such a life foster the group dynamic necessary for a cadre of nobles to write thirty-six plays?
The case against the author(-s) being of the nobility becomes even stronger, in my opinion, when one remembers that William Shakespeare was a part owner of the acting company. In his capacity as partial owner and house playwright I feel it is reasonable to consider that William Shakespeare's career was very likely like that of a playwright and artistic director in today's theatre. The acting company was under the auspices of a noble, and as such it was in the company's best interest to make a profit for said noble. Significantly, William Shakespeare's theatre was profitable, and profitable at a time when players were considered vagrants. We must not forget that Shakespeare's theatre was not the only theatre in town, either. He had competition. The profile he would have had to maintain and the work he had to shoulder to ensure that success rules out any chance that some noble, in favor and dancing attendance at court, was the 'real' author. Any noble out of favor with the court would have been insane or suicidal to take such a risk.

The objections raised around the specialized knowledge depicted in the plays (e.g. music and law) are quite weak. We know little enough about his life to assert one way or the other about his knowledge, or lack thereof, regarding such topics. Further, any responsible writer with a modicum of talent and self-respect knows enough to seek out experts when necessary. For someone of Will Shakespeare's standing I suspect it would be quite easy to obtain expert input whenever necessary.

These arguments aside, I maintain that the sheer talent evidenced in this body of work argues plaintively for a sole author. The poetry and plays form an intricate and intimate web of story which tells me that the author lived story, lived his art. He chose the life and he lived it. The writing life was his answer to Juliet's question, "Wherefore art thou?" His art was his way of being himself. He knew the work inside out, upside down, every which way. Writing was not a sometime pastime for him. It was life.

Not all writers have the kind of talent it takes to write original stories, stories like "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Tempest," "King Lear," "Othello," "Much Ado About Nothing," " Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice," "The Winter's Tale," and the list continues. Here I paraphrase the praise Lewis Mumford lavished upon 20th century painter Georgia O'Keeffe in 1936 when I say that in "conception and execution" not only is William Shakespeare's body of work evidence "of consummate craftsmanship, but it likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul, which distinguishes important communication from the casual reports of the eye" and ear.

There is no question in my mind at all that William Shakespeare was a willing conduit for the creative force which accesses knowledge and tuition beyond that available to our senses. He was a willing, talented, and inspiring conduit. We have evidence that at least one contemporary playwright considered Will Shakespeare a professional threat and felt inspired to jealousy by his work. Jealousy does not spring from watching another fail.

My final argument for Will Shakespeare as the author of Will Shakespeare's plays and poetry is his eminent work, "Hamlet," the 'existential' play, the play about 'being.' This play's the thing wherein he addressed the attacks upon his authorship of the plays, "the slings and arrows" aimed at his "outrageous fortune," his unprecedented success. How better to assert his right to his own work than by couching it in the play wherein he lays bare his grief over the death of his only son, Hamnet?
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free,
Confound the ignorant and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

"Hamlet," II.ii.586-593, Folger Shakespeare Library ed.

No other man anywhere, ever, can claim Hamnet as his son but William Shakespeare. Nor can any other person anywhere in time lay claim to the poetry and drama of William Shakespeare. This is his primal scream, "I Am!" Any number of men may have wanted to rule the Globe, but only William Shakespeare, the glover's son from Stratford has that distinction.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

"Othello," III.iii.182-190, Folger Shakespeare Library ed.

[Photos (all Barbara Butler McCoy): Top: from the Martin Luther King museum, Atlanta, GA; 2009; Middle: a fool pictured on a toy store window, St. Simons Island, GA; 2009; Bottom: banner outside the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.; 2009]

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Oh, it feels good to be here. Rarely during these past weeks and months have I had the time for my art or for this. There just wasn't time. That has been tough because Art is the means I choose to be myself. Fortunately I have the life and works of Georgia O'Keeffe to serve as wonderful examples of maintaining an artful life whatever the circumstances.

She chose every day to practice art, to live art. It takes a lot of fortitude to outlast such pressures. You really have to want to live it, to practice it, to withstand that. One of my favorite anecdotes from Ms. O'Keeffe's life involves her stint as "supervisor of drawing and penmanship" in 1913. "She was responsible for the art education of hundreds of pupils in Amarillo's half-dozen schools." She was a proponent of the teachings of Arthur Wesley Dow and "fiercely opposed the old-fashioned teaching technique of 'copying,' and she told her pupils not to buy an expensive drawing book ... that had been recommended by the educators. In the spring of 1913, however, the Texas legislature passed a law requiring the use of textbooks chosen by the state commission ... A tense, lengthy struggle between Georgia and the state of Texas ensued - but when the school year ended, the books had not been bought."

Why art? Why does the practice of art make such a difference? See, it is not just art - not 'just' a painting, not 'just' a photograph, not 'just' a sculpture, not 'just' a song, not 'just' a poem. It is art from the heart.

Ms. O'Keeffe saw this so clearly and communicated it with her work entitled "My Heart," stones rendered in pastels. She had a visual reminder before her in New Mexico of constancy amid change, the Pedernal, birthplace of the Navajos' 'Changing Woman.' The heart Ms. O'Keeffe saw, like the Pedernal, is the constant in human life amidst whatever change occurs. The heart is the constant. Years before her pastel rendering of her heart Alfred Stieglitz, her husband, had shown her work with that of other women artists to declare to the world his assertion that "women could reveal a new and uniquely feminine perspective on modern experience." I feel Stieglitz was only partially correct in that assertion.

Rather than revealing a new perspective on modern experience alone, anyone practicing, anyone living, an artful life can reveal through their work a new and unique perspective on Human experience. How? How?

The practice of art is the practice of mindfulness. It is the practice of being here now. It is the practice of connecting to the Everlasting through the heart and channeling the tuition received there to the mind to inform the art. There are no short cuts here - no painting by the numbers, no storytelling by special software, no drawing by textbook copying. The only way to art is through the heart. The beauty of it is, to me, that just as Ms. O'Keeffe's heart could have been part of that Pedernal, her art, anyone's art, offers a perspective on the human experience.
The vision and knowledge of human experience that comes when heart and mind are tuned to the Everlasting in the here and now is vision and knowledge that sees above and beyond, beyond what is available to the senses, beyond the petty contrivances that may clutter our days.
This is brilliantly articulated in a review in The New Yorker of a 1930s show of her work, this portion of which will be my closing note:

Not only is it a piece of consummate craftsmanship, but it
likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul, which distinguishes important communication from the casual reports of the eye ...

[Photos: Top: Weeping cherry, the author, 2010; Middle: detail from pastel by author's son, Dan, 1999; Bottom: detail from scratchboard piece by author's son, Sean, 2002]

[Bibliography: Lisle, Laurie. "Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe." New York: Washington Square Press, 1980, 1986]